"And then, twenty years later . . .": A Conversation with Paula Gunn Allen

John Purdy

 

* The following conversation took place at Chateau de la Bretesche in Brittany on June 25, 1997, immediately following the completion a three-day symposium entitled "Theories of Representation in American Indian Literatures: European and North American Perspectives." The symposium brought together European and American scholars and Native writers to share research topics and approaches, and the discussions that ensued were enjoyably intense and wide ranging. Since much of it brought historical contexts to bear in the discussion of Native texts, it seemed only appropriate to discuss the last twenty years with Paula, who was one of the participants in the 1977 Flagstaff conference that resulted in the formation of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures.

The following is an edited transcription of that conversation. The text is as close to the original substance, with interruptions and repetitive exclamations--such as Well, ah . . . and the repeated laughter (unfortunately)--omitted. *

 

John Purdy (JP): It’s interesting, this morning, to be talking about the last twenty years, though, and that’s one of the fun things about doing with this issue of S.A.I.L. It’s been twenty years since Flagstaff. And as you were saying this morning there’s a lot that’s happened in 20 years.

Paula Gunn Allen (PGA): Tremendous, so much . . .

JP: Yeah . . .

PGA: It’s hard to know what the group . . . the first meetings were so funny. You’d go to M.L.A. [Modern Language Association’s annual conference], and there’d be this nice group of English professors or American lit[erature] professors, whatever. The first one I went to was, it must have been ‘73, Michael Dorris and myself and one other person, I forget who it was, and the people in the audience were asking, no, making these comments like, "Well, I know an Indian and he told me that the Indian way is blahda blahda blahda blahda." And then, by the time I went to the last M.L.A. I went to, which was a couple of years ago in San Francisco, the level of the discussion is like the level here, at this symposium. It was, just, so far beyond what we could even dream of doing then. It’s ah . . . I’m on the eve of retiring and I feel completely comfortable, in terms of my responsibility, to the community, because my job has been to work in the literary field, and that’s my contribution to our people, and I feel completely comfortable. It’s not a problem. There’s enough people out there doing enough variety of things, with really some solid approaches, that are useful to the Native people as well as to the literary community. So it’s perfectly all right; I can quit and others can do it as well. *Oh good!*

I started doing criticism because nobody could read my work. Nobody could read Momaday’s or anybody’s, and so I started writing about it because there was no other way to get a readership. Quite selfishly for myself, although I never made any money from it. It was a bit disgusting that everybody else’s [non-Native writers’] work was being studied . . .

JP: Well, that’s kind of interesting, because if one thinks of all the works people refer to most often, many of them are yours. Not just fiction or poetry, but the criticism. The Sacred Hoop, the early ones, Studies in American Indian Literatures. Those are two prominent things that came perfectly spaced in this twenty years . . .

PGA: Actually they are the first ones out of my [creative] work, and the novel came between Studies and The Sacred Hoop. But, since I began as a poet and a novelist, and then I did these other things because they needed to be done--and I do enjoy it, I really enjoy it--I feel overshadowed, like I should have stayed with poetry, like Joy [Harjo] or Linda [Hogan], or Jim Welch or so many others, and stayed as a creative artist, but then I tend to have a discursive mind, as well as the other kind, so, when I stop to think about it I realize, yeah, I couldn’t have done that.

JP: Well it’s been an interesting time, a few decades of talking about the literature and then the different critical approaches that have come along, some of which have evolved (some of which haven’t) over the past twenty years, but also the books, the novels, the poetry, the drama itself. I mean, my god, it is truly phenomenal.

PGA: But there was nothing then, and now there’s everything, like I said earlier. I can’t even keep up with it all . . .

JP: None of us can . . .

PGA: For a while there I could do Native American Literature [a course]; it was so hurried to try to do it in one semester, particularly the contemporary literature, meaning from Apess forward, but it could be done. There just wasn’t that much in print. By 1982, I was at U.C,L.A. on a grant, and my idea was to do a comprehensive anthology of Native American Women’s Poetry. After I counted 200 American Indian women in print, I gave up. I thought: it just can’t be done. By then you couldn’t do American Indian poetry and do it justice, there was just too many poets, let alone American Indian Women’s poetry. But in ‘77 you could have done it, and you could have at least given a wide representation of much of the poetry that was in print. Can you imagine that?! Since then, it’s very hard to deal with just one person’s work. Isn’t that wonderful? It’s so exciting for me.

So then I went to fiction, the novel, and I specialized in that for quite a while, and finally short fiction started getting published. There was only a Richard Seaver’s book [edited by Kenneth Rosen], The Man to Send Rain Clouds, until the late ‘80s. And after Granddaughters came out I was amazed, that was received so well. I couldn’t believe it. I just didn’t think people read short story collections, never mind Native American women’s short story collections. And that was reviewed in the New York Times and in The Chronicle, it was a "Pick of the Month" and of the year, and one thing and another, and it was just delightful, because the works are so splendid. Oh, my, it was a delight to be asked to edit. So, now, there are so many fiction anthologies that I can’t even deal with them all either.

JP: That’s what’s amazing about these last twenty years, too, is certain points in that history where something like Spider Woman’s Granddaughters comes along and it’s so successful that it opens some doors and then its progressive because each work that’s produced, just demonstrates again and again the power of the works that are being produced . . .

PGA: Without Momaday and House Made of Dawn and the Pulitzer Prize none of us would be here, because it made people in publishing and the academy more willing to pay attention, than they had ever been. Our big problem now is to get ourselves out of that minority literature "The Oppressed People Garden," which I find entirely irrelevant. It’s not multi-cultural literature. I’ve taught Asian American literature, meaning Korean American, Chinese American, Japanese American, Vietnamese American and I’ve taught Chicana American, Hispanic, Latina, and I’ve taught Black American, Carribean., et cetera. Our situation, the Native people’s situation, is *quite* different. We don’t belong in Ethnic Studies, anymore than English does, and English is, from my point of view as an Americanist, an ethnicity. And English literature should be studied in Comparative Literature. And American literature should be a discipline, certainly growing from England and France, Germany, Spain, Denmark, and the Native traditions, particularly because those helped form the American canon. Those are our backgrounds. And then we’d be doing it the way it ought to be done. And someday I hope that it will be.

But certainly we [Native writers] make no more sense [being studied] with African American literature than we make with "New World" American literatures. It’s not sensible to put us into that category. Are we oppressed? Well, yes, we are, but no we’re not, because we still live on our own land, and we still live with our own gods, and we still live with our own ceremonies, and so people have moved, or were forcibly moved, but they took themselves with themselves. That was actually common, like with the Sioux, who eventually emerged out on the plains as the Lakota. But they took themselves with themselves on that entire, long, that centuries-long journey. So it’s not that they’ve lost that Native tradition; they just moved. And they have re-moved. I mean if you look at the oral traditions, which is what we must look to if we are going to do accurate and responsible criticism, we can see that these things actually happened. We see that abduction narratives were a very important part of Native American traditions, if it was the Shoshonis, or Laguna or whatever, we find these abduction narratives. And contemporary Native cultures don’t have any slave narratives. What they did was they took the abduction narrative and shifted it to contemporary situations, so that all that happens is that the oral tradition gets reframed, but ‘s the same story. It’s just got a different setting. Different costumes, same story.

JP: That’s interesting. One of the things people have been discussing in academics for at least 20 years, if not longer . . . is, well, we get into the binaries again, don’t we? Should there be a Native American literatures course, or should it be studied in the "American canon?" So that has always been a debate, but to take a topical approach like "what we have carried with us" or abduction stories, and then we could look at various cultures . . .

PGA: And then you could do it without creating the dimensional problems we’ve been having, because it’s not binary, it’s not either/or, and the thing is I would like to call the university a multiversity. The university means there’s only one god, there’s only one way to do things, and to me that is directly counter to the American experience. That’s fine for the English or the French, or whoever, and in discussion they say they don’t like that [to be grouped together] but then why do they do it to us? Why can’t we have many literatures, all of which are American? African American literature is not African. It really isn’t. It’s American literature informed by the experiences here and African oral traditions, which were brought over from various African nations.

JP: Well, that makes a lot of sense. If we’re ever going to be able to have a true discourse we have to get rid of those simplistic determinations; the thing is, and its always been kind of fascinating to me, that the geographical space we call the U.S.A. has always been multi-cultured. What has happened is there has been a construction and perpetuation of a myth of a uni-cultural experience.

PGA: Well, you know, I think it’s Christian. You can only have one god, one holy and apostolic church. Okay, so imbedded in western thought for two-thousand years, or fifteen hundred years at least, is the idea of one king, one emperor, one people. But that’s not true. And even the motto e pluribus unum, out of many one, but really what we have is out of many, many. And it’s wonderful, cause that’s the reality. Have you ever heard of one anything? You can’t just have one leaf, you’ve got to have the whole tree.

JP: If you have only one thing, it dies off.

PGA: Gone. That’s right. Everything has to be community, and it has to be multiple-community literature. That’s what it has to be. There’s no reason why we can’t develop contemporary Native American stance that enables us to generate political strategies that will apply. Not the same ones for everyone, but the appropriate ones for the case that you’re examining. I don’t see why, especially with computers and all. I think the issue is about status.

JP: Right back to what we were talking about earlier.

PGA: You have got to have "the right one," because once you have mastered "the right one" you can become the elite, and what worries them is they won’t be the elite anymore and then what would they do for meaning? Well, they might have to get a life, and we can’t have that.

But just in terms of, well from Flagstaff to now,--that I can say these things, that I can even think these things--is such an enormous leap. There’re so many approaches, there’re so many writers, there’re so many critical studies, which I find all delightful.

JP: It is exciting, the way it should be.

PGA: Even when they’re wrong, they dream up excellent ways of saying why, and in what ways they succeed and in what ways they fail, which we couldn’t do then. All we could do was stand there and say "No, no, no" because we didn’t know that kind of [critical] language and those kinds of critical strategies, to work from.

We’ve come all this way, to a point where Mary Churchill can develop a *Cherokee* critical approach. It’s just staggering. Like Henry Louis Gates did with The Signifying Monkey, and certainly for me that was a model of thinking, thinking, "Look. He did it." He’s got an Africanist model, that is mediated by what they call "New World" experience.

So, by the time you get to popular thought, yes, you have Esu-Elegbara but you have something very unique, very American and that is peculiar to African experience in the United States, as opposed to the Caribbean, as opposed to Brazil I suppose, or wherever. But it’s distinctly not just African. And you could take the critic as the man at the crossroads, the one who interprets, what the gods said to the speaker, the writer, the poet, duh dah duh da duh da (the expression). You have the code--I can’t remember their name for the code [alphabert of Mawu?]--but there’s an actual code, and the critic is the one who knows the code, and she decodes it. Just as the case in the Esu-Elegbara figure decodes what’s coming through the channel, the trans-medium. So, you begin to see that the critic fits into a tradition that’s entirely whole. It’s not about appropriating, it’s about interpreting.

JP: As long as the critic doesn’t keep the code [secret].

PGA: Well, that’s the thing. You have to know the code well, and then you can share it.

Instead, if you don’t know it well, of course you hide it because you don’t want anyone to know how ignorant you are.

JP: Good point.

PGA: No, I agree the code has to be there for all.

JP: Along those line, then, since we began this by talking about the last 20 years, what do you see happening next?

PGA: I don’t know.

JP: Part of the fun of it, huh?

PGA: Yeah, because I truly do believe that when white buffalo calf was born, that when the blue star kachina returned, that’s what they called the Hale-Bopp comet, that’s Quetzalcoatl, it’s actually a whole new game.

But if things stay going in the many directions in which they are going, certainly in publication, our voice will be heard more and more strongly, because readers love it. Far more than publishers, and far more than the academy, just readers, out there, really relate to it. Because I think that Native stories, and novels and poetry, speak to something that’s peculiarly with America. It catches American readers, because we’re all trying to figure who we are and what we’re doing here. Canadian Native writers don’t write that way. There’s very different stuff going on up there, and south of the United States, they’re writing about other kinds of things, but all American, U.S. folks are sitting around going "Who the hell are we? Where do we come from? And isn’t this difficult?" We’re trying to negotiate too many traditions too many ways of understanding. And that’s what Native writers are dealing with.

Among all the writers, that is why we’ve got to get out of ethnic literature because the strategies for understanding it don’t work, for understanding Native literatures. Very little of our literature is the literature of protest, of oppression. Very little of it. Most of it is the literature of the spirit or the literature of ritual. Almost all of it is, call it political voice and drama, is always informed by the presence of this knowledge that there is always this other world, with which we are always engaged. It isn’t over "there" somewhere; it’s in our presence and our midst and we are in its presence and its midst. You can’t get a text if you don’t get that, as a principle. You can’t do that with African American literature or Chinese American literature or so on. Though I do . . . and I find all kind of things in their works that their own critics aren’t finding, because they all have a tendency to stay connected to the spirit world. Women’s literature often does, too, unless its pretending that it isn’t x or y. In which case it turns out to be something else entirely.

JP: Are you back to the genetic model [which we discussed during our final symposium meeting]?

PGA: I’m back to the genetic model of X and Y. Well, what’s interesting about that is all zygotes are X, and for some reason, and nobody has talked about why, (but maybe it’s a mutation) one leg of the X gets dropped as the zygote becomes an [female] embryo. Okay, so then, what gets lost is that socialization capacity.

For a long time feminists talked about women networking but I know an awful lot of women who do no such thing. And so I couldn’t understand . . . I knew there was something to it. It doesn’t matter where I go. I sit down and we start talking about babies and shopping and hairdos and we’re fine. All the woman needs are the culture she comes from and to share all this. And then there’s the boy culture, the football and the sports, etc. Men tend not to communicate. All the studies show it, and they just don’t and that’s their way. And then women are at them all the time, "But you don’t talk, but you won’t share." But then this study came out, and it was published in Nature magazine June 1997, . . . it explained to me the difference between the male and the female and I think it’s significant.

Certainly in a Native world you have strongly gendered traditions and you can’t really say "Kiowa is," you have to say Kiowa male, or Kiowa female, because they really are different, and that’s very important in oral traditions, and it continues to inform the literature. Look at the treatment of women in Welch and Momaday and so on, compared to the treatment of women in Allen or Hogan what have you. It’s not that we sit around and think "Well, let’s see, the woman’s tradition is. . ."; you just grow up, being informed of these things and nobody says that’s "the Indian way." It’s just part of what you learn from your folks. They seldom identify it in any way, so you just think that’s how reality is--at least that is how your reality is. It’s going back to this genetic code, for how we understand reality. There’s a male code and there’s a female code. Neither one is better or more important, obviously, or they wouldn’t both be here would they? And the truth is probably more complex than that. There’s probably like nine genders. I was just reading about the Eskimos--they didn’t say Inuit--a very contemporary documentary on the number of genders, that these people experience within their communities. And if you look at the genders we recognize: there’s male, female, homosexual male, bisexual male, lesbians who go both ways, estrogen conscious, but also in another valence, then there’s the true hermaphrodite, and there’s probably variations within there, like there’s people with fundamental heterosexual feelings who have strong homosexual pulls, and that’s probably pretty common. In each case there’s the male partner and the female partner. There’s people with XXY chromosomes and XYY chromosomes and all of this is going to have an effect, not just on gender but on consciousness. But the tribal people pay attention to this, and the modern people try to eradicate these differences.

JP: Uni-

PGA: Exactly, there’s only one way. Instead of saying there are many ways and we need them all, unless this were true, we wouldn’t all be here. It seems to me fairly straightforward.

And that goes for criticism too. Back to your question: what will happen, if we’re lucky is that American scholars will continue to work the way most of us are working, which is to open it up. Open it up. As chaos theory . . . and there’s some new stuff, that I can’t remember the name of, Change Theory or something like that, and I haven’t had time to research it, but something called the principle of mediocrity, which is the idea of the golden mean, or the median: anything that is, will tend toward balance, will tend toward the median, which opens up everything. You don’t have to find the extremes, because what will happen is that the patterns will keep reiterating but that also means varying. So we will always come back to what it was, but it will always go away from what it was.

JP: Well, that kind of fits in with what you were talking about this morning, especially with the image of the swirling water. It’s [the world views of Natives and non-Natives] fundamentally a very minor shift in one’s point of view, but it’s a world apart.

PGA: You’re right. It turns out to be major, and all you have to do is shift your eyes a little bit and suddenly you realize that wider pattern: it’s the tree pattern, it’s the hill pattern, it’s the grass pattern, it’s the literature discussion pattern, is the . . . is the . . . is the . . . and they are all singing to each other, you know, which is of course what we say. It was a dance sweetheart. There’s Joy Harjo. And that’s exactly why it works. "Something sacred is going on in the universe" Momaday says. Or grandson, this earth is fragile. And we’re all saying the same thing. I’m saying chaos, mandlebrot set, julius set, pay attention here, look at fractals. Because in this way we can explain not only our literature, but now everybody, once we develop these process appropriately, we’ll be able to give a fair shake to anybody’s book, to take the book itself on its merits, where it comes from, rather than trying to make it an issue like the canonical blah blah blah. Well who cares? What is it? Not, what is it like?

JP: Yeah, that’s a good point. It has to go that way doesn’t it? If it doesn’t we’re in deep trouble.

PGA: It just terrifies me.

JP: It’s going to be just that much more fragmentary and divisive.

PGA: Balkanized, as they like to say in the States. Fragmented. Bricolage! [Earlier in the day there was a long discussion about the implications of this French term.]

JP: Bricolage! Let’s talk about your Bricolage.

PGA: I’ll tell you about my Bricolage; I huffed and I puffed and I couldn’t blow it down.

JP: Wonderful . . . wonderful. So what’s on for you next? What about writing?

PGA: I’ve been working on a book called The Seven Generations. It’s supposed to be a book about Native spiritual systems. A sort of "how to be an Indian without even really trying." Everything you ever wanted to know about being an Indian but were afraid to ask. But I really mean that in the sense of what I mentioned in the talk today. There’s this mythic sense and there is this way of perceiving, and that the dances are somehow connected to that, so you can’t just get a drum and sit around and chant and feel good, and call yourself enlightened. That’s not how it is. The idea is to work out a text, that will help people who are searching. This is not a literary text; it’s not meant for literature people. In fact, I see this conference as my last literary thing that I’m doing in Native literature, perhaps in any literature because I want to move away from it. My own calling has always been of the spirit and I just want to do that before I get too old and can’t. So that’s happening. I’ve got a book of essays that Beacon has picked up and will coming out within a year. All my essays until now.

JP: A collection of your essays.

PGA: Everything. Stuff that was not in The Sacred Hoop but that predates it, and a number of things that I’ve written since. I don’t know the title yet. I think I’m going to argue for Pocahontas Perplexed: An Indian Woman’s View of Life, Literature and Philosophy. The publishers want it to be A Native American’s View of . . . and I don’t like that. I want, you know, just one person. It’s just me, what I think. I’m saying these things. I know what I think; that’s my responsibility. I’m not supposed to know what other people think.

I just had a book of poetry published called Life is a Fatal Disease. West End Press brought it out. Nice book, Albuquerque. And I did a book called As Long as the Rivers Shall Flow, with Pat Smith. It’s nine biographies, for young people. Scholastic picked it up.

JP: Scholastic just did something by Tiffany Midge, too, and some other people are under contract. Looks like this going in the direction it needs to go in, that audience.

PGA: Absolutely, to get over these stupid images [of Native people] like the ones we were talking about yesterday.

Let’s see, what else? Oh, Song of the Turtle came out, so that collection is complete. But I would like to write several more volumes: Son of Turtle, Turtle Island and Turtle Soup. And The Revenge of Turtle . . .

JP: And Turtle XIII.

PGA: And Turtle XIII, yes. In some other life, perhaps.

JP: About that anthology, when you talked about that anthology this morning, you said you conceived of it not as most editors, or publishers, do--as a collection of distinct and discreet units--but as a novel. That was wonderful!

PGA: It goes back to the Flagstaff conference when Revard said, "Yes, but is it Indian to write novels?" And I spent years thinking about that, and I thought, yes, actually, it is. We have something that would fit what folklorists call cycles; so there’s the old woman cycle, the trickster cycle, or the warrior cycle, on and on, the deer dance cycle. Well, those are long involved narratives, that go quite a long time. Well a novel is a long involved narrative that goes on a long time. But in truth you can see that certain thematic concerns, preoccupations will arise and then get reiterated and explored and deepened and then they’ll get dropped and later they will be picked back up. So, in essence, our cycles are doing the same thing. Probably, novels developed out of the same kind of thing.

JP: Yes, like you said, very event structured, but they are strung together by certain concerns . . .

PGA: Yeah, there’s a narrative coherence, or thematic units . . .

So, then, given that, if you take a whole bunch of stories that are about Native female supernaturals, like my Grandmothers of the Light, why . . . what happened--and I didn’t know this would happen--was all these different Native nations were telling the same story.

[Here, the tape ended. Once it was replaced and the recorder ready, we moved back into a discussion of criticism.]

JP: You were saying that, that’s what Aristotle did, he looked at the text, rather than trying to impose something on it.

PGA: That’s what I was taught in criticism class.

JP: Well, so was I. People look down on the New Critical approach and brand it as something outdated and insignificant, but actually it’s all in how you use it. Isn’t it?

PGA: I’m a firm defender of the New Critical approach. I just don’t think there’s anything else you can do. All the rest is extra. If you can’t do that one, then you can’t do the others.

JP: It goes back to that coding we were talking about, too. All of a sudden you have a language there that you don’t want to share or open up for other people. I’ve always considered some of the things happening today, especially in Native literary criticism, as a post-facto prophecy. In other words, this is what it’s going to be, and if it doesn’t fit this pattern or this mold, then it is something else. Very prescriptive.

PGA: Even the scientists do that and they’re not supposed to. I read Francis Bacon and I know what they’re supposed to do as scientists. But they have this wonderful thing called the Null Set. What you do, basically, is erect an hypothesis based upon what your important, high status predecessors have done, and then compel the data to conform to it. If it doesn’t, then you throw it into the Null Set. Isn’t that cute?

JP: Right. We need more null sets.

PGA: Yeah. I don’t like that kid. Let’s throw it in the trash.

Instead of saying that’s going on for a reason, I wonder why? Maybe it’s my approach, my methodology, a variety of things, but there it is, let’s examine it. But if I understand Bacon, he said we are to look at what is there, examine it, and then, perhaps, come up with some comments which will lead us to the next plane of exploration. Something was said today, something about answers. And I wanted to say, no, no, no. That’s not the point. It’s not about answers; it’s about good questions.

JP: Good questions, yes.

PGA: One exploration leads to another, that’s fractal.

JP: Right. Answers are conclusive, questions open up possibilities.

PGA: Answers stop discussion, close out possibilities. Questions open them and encourage conversation.

JP: Course lots of people just want the answers.

PGA: My students, for instance. "Just give me the answers so I can get an ‘A’."

JP: I was talking about Green Grass, Running Water yesterday, and in the beginning King has the classroom with Mary Rowlandson, and anthropologists in it, asking "Is this going to be on the test? Do we have to remember this?"

PGA: It’s like the doctor who says I could really practice medicine here, if it weren’t for the patients.

JP: But that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? The students. That’s what keeps us going.

PGA: Yeah. So often, I have good students. I’m lucky that way. They’re always teaching me things I would have never thought. That’s my idea of how to teach.

JP: It blows them away when you say that, though. It’s funny, you take 25 undergraduates and drop a text on them you’ve used before, and they’ll see things you’ve never seen, even after reading it a dozen times.

PGA: And they’ll see stuff, and they’re always taken aback, because they are so used to professors who already know everything--or, who don’t, but won’t ever admit it. Not to undergraduates at least.

JP: And the joy continues.

PGA: The story goes on.

* My appreciation to my editorial assistant, Aaron Gorseth, for the initial transcription of the audio tape of this conversation.

 

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